The Cruelest Cut: How a common cat surgery became the next battleground for animal rights

Photoillustration by Jay Vollmar. Source photography:
Photoillustration by Jay Vollmar. Source photography:

The Cruelest Cut: How a common cat surgery became the next battleground for animal rights

Over the years, Jennifer Conrad has come to see her fight as one against greed and stupidity, a nasty pocket of the stuff festering deep in the heart of her own profession. When her crusade began, though, Conrad wasn't thinking that way. She was focused on one patient, Drifter, a three-year-old, 550-pound tiger who was in agony and pissed off about it.

Growing up in a family of physicians in Malibu, California, Conrad was always passionate about animal welfare. She had gone to veterinary school with the idea of helping endangered species and had traveled to six continents, working with exotic animals and often trading her services for room and board. Around Hollywood, where she was known as the "Vet to the (Real) Stars," her patients included many famous film performers, including the tiger featured in The Hangover.

But Conrad treated less-celebrated felines, too — big cats that had worked in circuses or in Vegas-style magic acts until they became too old or sick and were farmed out to carnivore sanctuaries. Many of them had been declawed in their youth in an effort to make them easier to handle onstage. The surgical procedure, known as an onychectomy, involves amputation of the final segment of toe bone as well as the attached claw and can have numerous long-term complications, including chronic pain, bleeding, lameness, arthritis, aggressiveness and nail regrowth.

Several of the tigers and lions Conrad saw had been practically crippled by the anatomical changes wrought by the surgery. Some walked on their wrists or elbows, or hardly moved at all because putting weight on their toes was too painful. One of the worst was Drifter, a Siberian mix with a pronounced limp. He was so debilitated that Conrad decided to organize a surgical team to reattach tendons in Drifter's paws that had been severed by the declawing.

In the course of the innovative five-hour operation, the team also removed hefty nuggets of nail fragments, several centimeters in length, that had been growing under the skin, causing pain and distorting Drifter's gait. The results were dramatic.

"After surgery he was standing up like a normal cat and walking like a normal cat," Conrad recalls. "He never fell back down onto his wrists. Then we knew we were on to something."

Beginning with Drifter's operation in 1999, Conrad began documenting on film her efforts to rehabilitate declawed exotics. She paid for the first eight surgeries out of her own pocket. She figured that the "before" images might help persuade authorities to ban the declawing of wild animals and that the "after" pictures could prompt their handlers to seek relief for those already afflicted. She was right on both counts. In 2004, thanks largely to her efforts, California banned the declawing of wild cats; two years later, the U.S. Department of Agriculture enacted a nationwide ban on declawing for virtually all large carnivores.

Conrad has now performed around 225 tendon-repair surgeries on 76 lions, tigers, panthers and other declawed exotics. But her film project has morphed into something else: an emotional, provocative yet scientifically grounded documentary, The Paw Project, about her decade-long battle to stop the declawing of the common American house cat.

Most pet-friendly nations already outlaw onychectomy. The United Kingdom's Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons deems the procedure "not acceptable" under most circumstances, and laws in most European countries explicitly prohibit it. In Israel, declawing a cat can result in a fine of 75,000 shekels — more than $20,000. Authorities in Brazil, Japan, Turkey and Australia also frown on the practice.

Yet in the United States declawing is still a common — and lucrative — part of the veterinary business. A surgery that's now considered too barbaric for wild animals is widely marketed through coupons and special spay-neuter "package deals" to cat lovers of all stripes. Studies indicate that 22 million cats, about one-fourth of the country's total domesticated feline population, have been declawed. On average, vets charge between $400 and $800 for the surgery, which takes less than ten minutes per paw and can be done with a scalpel, laser or guillotine-type trimmer.

In more than 90 percent of the cases, pet owners request the surgery on a cat's front paws (and sometimes all four) because of concerns about Fluffy scratching the furniture. Veterinarians justify the procedure by describing it as an effective solution to a behavior problem that might otherwise lead to the animal being abandoned or surrendered to a shelter. But Conrad and other critics of declawing say it's the vet industry's dirty, bloody, money-making secret, an excruciating and unnecessary procedure that's fraught with complications and mutilates cats. In many cases, critics say, declawing leads to even more problematic behavior — including biting and a refusal to use the litter box — that dooms cats to shelters and euthanization.

"If declawing helped the cat in any way, I would not be fighting like this," Conrad says. "Declawing does not keep a cat in its home. If someone is intolerant of a cat scratching a couch, they're really going to be intolerant of a cat not using the litter box."

Conrad has a letter from one veterinarian in Southern California who bragged that "he declaws every cat that comes in the door because it makes him between $75,000 and $80,000 a year," she says. "The bottom line is that veterinarians make a lot of money doing this, and they recommend it without disclosing what the surgery does to cats."

The Paw Project tracks Conrad's quest to persuade officials in nine California cities, from West Hollywood to San Francisco, to support a municipal ban on declawing. The film premiered last week in Denver, and it's scheduled for a St. Louis release later this year. Several Colorado vets and cat-rescue workers are featured in the film, and they're hoping to use the screening as the kickoff for an even more ambitious campaign, a push to pass legislation next year that would create a ban on declawing across Colorado — the first statewide ban anywhere in the country.

"We want to ban it because it is fundamentally cruel," says retired vet Jean Hofve, coauthor of The Complete Guide to Holistic Cat Care. "It's a radical surgery to correct a behavior problem that's not hard to fix by other means. No other civilized country does it except Canada, and even Canada is getting close to banning it."

Perhaps because declawing has become a deeply divisive issue among practitioners, the American Veterinary Medical Association and many state vet organizations have tried to sound studiously neutral on the subject. The AVMA policy on declawing acknowledges that the surgery "is not a medically necessary procedure for the cat in most cases" and urges that it be considered only if less drastic alternatives to correct behavior problems fail — and only after owners are provided "complete education with regard to feline onychectomy." But the vets, techs, shelter workers and activists gearing up to get the surgery banned in Colorado say their own education in what the procedure entails has already come at too high a price.

"We strongly, strongly, strongly counsel against declawing," says Suellen Scott, director of development for the Cat Care Society in Lakewood, Colorado. Like many feline shelters, CCS has had cats that were adopted years earlier returned because of behavior problems after being declawed.

"Personally, I can't wait until it's illegal," Scott says. "That will be a wonderful day."

Thirty years ago, when a new partner in his veterinary practice began declawing cats, Aubrey Lavizzo didn't consider the procedure all that remarkable. The partner had learned the technique at Colorado State University; Lavizzo, who'd studied at Tuskegee University in the 1960s when declawing was a lot less common, soon picked up the basics and began doing a few himself.

The partnership ended after several years. Lavizzo continued to declaw when pet owners asked for it, albeit with growing qualms. "We didn't have good anesthetics," he recalls. "Bleeding and postoperative pain were huge issues. We thought we were doing some good; we talked about how, if we didn't do it, these cats would lose their homes. But I started seeing more and more problems."

He saw post-op abscesses and cats gnawing their own paws. He saw blood-sprayed cages when the bandages weren't tight enough and sloughed-off flesh when they were too tight. Worst of all, he saw cats in severe pain days or weeks after the surgery. He began to doubt the wisdom of performing amputations to correct what was normal feline behavior — especially when there were less gruesome alternatives, from scratching posts to nail caps to weekly trims, available to even the laziest pet owner. After one particularly upsetting case, he decided he would never do another one.

"I finally just asked myself, 'Why am I hurting cats?'" he remembers. "There's no moral way to justify it. It's a violation of the oath we took."

Lavizzo stopped doing declaws in the 1990s, becoming one of the first vets in Colorado to denounce the procedure. "I had some good clients who begged me to do it, and I told them I couldn't, and I wouldn't refer them to anyone else," he says. "There's no right way to do an unnecessary surgery and somehow guarantee that there won't be complications."

Far from hurting his practice, Lavizzo's stance brought in new customers who were pleased that he didn't offer declawing. (Point of disclosure: Although I'm petless at present and was unaware of his declawing policy until recently, cats and dogs in my household were treated by Lavizzo for years.) He believes his position also attracted a stronger pool of job applicants, including assistants and technicians who prefer to work in a place that doesn't declaw. In 2011 the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association named him Veterinarian of the Year. He's now the state director of Conrad's nonprofit, the Paw Project, and is leading the campaign to ban declawing in Colorado.

In surveys, pet owners tend to express a high degree of satisfaction with the immediate results of declawing. Lavizzo acknowledges that some cats seem to recover from the surgery comparatively well — at least in the short term. But he has also seen a mounting pile of distressing posts on veterinarian discussion boards about declawing problems: practitioners seeking guidance when confronted with a wide array of complications, reports of nail regrowth occurring years after the surgery, confusion and conflicting advice about the best way to perform the operation and manage the pain, and so on.

"Some cats do fine," he says. "But who has the right to decide it's OK for some but not others? We don't know which cats will have complications. To me, one is too much."

When Conrad began looking into the scientific literature on the impacts of declawing, she found it to be surprisingly thin. There was hardly anything in the way of a long-range study tracking the welfare of declawed cats. "On a procedure that's done on 25 percent or more of American cats, there are fewer than 30 articles about the surgery," she says. "I later came to think that people don't want to know the truth about it."

Proponents of declawing claim that what research has been done supports the practice — and they cite the supposed absence of studies reporting negative effects as another point in their favor. For example, the AVMA policy on declawing states, rather cagily, that "there is no scientific evidence that declawing leads to behavioral abnormalities when the behavior of declawed cats is compared with that of cats in control groups."

Hofve, the holistic vet who's working with Lavizzo on a statewide ban, views that statement as misleading on several levels. A short-term comparison with a control group is a lot less useful, she argues, than a detailed, long-range analysis of an individual cat's behavior before and after surgery. And one 2001 peer-reviewed study, the only one involving a five-year followup period, found that 33 percent of the cats in the study group developed serious behavior problems after being declawed. Another study found that "inappropriate elimination" is twice as likely in declawed cats as in those that hadn't had the surgery; apparently, using the litter box can further irritate sore paws. (Biting, a separate but often related behavior problem, tends to increase in declawed cats because of the loss of their primary means of defense.)

"There's plenty of data," Hofve insists. "But the vet associations don't want anyone telling them what to do. Who's going to fund a long-term study of something they don't want to find out?"

Hofve points to other studies and surveys that challenge the American veterinary establishment's position on declawing. The AVMA policy indicates that the surgery should only be considered as a kind of last resort, but the available research suggests that 70 percent or more of declawings are done before the cat is a year old — hardly a sign that the owners have exhausted all other approaches to the scratching problem. (Promotional videos used in Conrad's documentary capture vets urging clients to have the procedure done on kittens.) And surveys reveal that the vast majority of pet owners who are considering declawing will change their minds when given facts about the nature of the surgery, the potential complications and nonsurgical alternatives.

Those results, Hofve says, indicate her colleagues are doing a piss-poor job of educating their clients about basic expectations and obligations involved in having a cat as a pet. "Veterinarians aren't telling people that when you get a cat, you're supposed to get a scratching post," she says. "As of 2012, 48 percent of cat owners still didn't know that. We've also failed to educate people about what declawing really is."

During her first five years in practice, Hofve did her share of declaws. Then, like Lavizzo, she stopped. "I was never any good at it because I hated it so much," she says.

Even after she gave up performing the procedure, she continued to see cats that had been declawed elsewhere and were suffering complications — in some cases, many years after the surgery. She saw a ten-year-old cat that had been declawed as a kitten and was experiencing painful nail regrowth from bone fragments that had been left behind, similar to the nuggets removed from under Drifter's skin in Conrad's surgery. If one in three cats that are declawed are manifesting obvious behavior problems, such as biting and shitting outside the box, Hofve believes the percentage of those experiencing complications of one kind or another is much, much higher; we just don't know about them because of the highly stoic nature of the species. No one knows, for example, to what extent cats may experience the kind of "phantom limb" pain associated with human amputations.

There's a good reason, Lavizzo adds, that nobody is declawing dogs: "When we see pain in dogs, we react to it. Cats are different; they don't show pain like dogs do. They go off and hide, and we just think they're being independent. We don't have the same kind of reaction to a cat's pain because we don't really know what's going on with the cat."

James Gaynor, a Colorado Springs veterinarian who specializes in pain management, has done extensive research on the chronic pain symptoms exhibited by some declawed cats. He says that veterinarians need to make sure owners understand that declawing isn't simply nail trimming, but a "ten-toe amputation."

"It's a simple but major orthopedic procedure," he says. "I am not against declawing whatsoever. I believe that if the anesthesia and pain management are handled correctly, it's no different from any other surgery that we perform."

Gaynor advocates an aggressive treatment approach, involving numerous drugs administered over several days, to greatly reduce the risk that a cat will experience chronic pain from the surgery. With the development of more cat-specific painkillers, he believes that most vets are doing a better job of postoperative care — though some still balk at the additional time and expense involved in the protocol he advocates. He recalls visiting a "big practice" back east where the vets "did almost nothing for pain management. They were basically torturing the cat. This shouldn't be some cut-rate procedure."

Although declawing is becoming an increasingly divisive issue among vets, basic instruction in the surgery is still taught at all but two of the country's 28 veterinary schools. Tim Hackett, a professor at Colorado State University and interim director of CSU's veterinary teaching hospital, says the university offers the "least traumatic" surgical methods. "We respect that people have ethical concerns about this," he says, "but it's a procedure that is somewhat in demand, and a practitioner should be exposed to the proper surgical technique and medications. I'd hate to have them learning it on the fly."

Randa MacMillan, the current president of the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association, stopped offering declawing in her own practice many years ago. But she suspects that the procedure is still "moderately common" among her membership and that the campaign to ban it will be a contentious one. She notes that an attempt last year to enact a ban on docking the tails of dairy cows — a surgery that makes things easier for the dairy industry but robs the animal of its only way to ward off flies — failed miserably.

"It's very hard to tell another vet how to practice," MacMillan says. "There are people who still routinely declaw, and these are the same ones who will really scream if somebody tries to tell them how to practice medicine."

Vets who do offer feline onychectomy say the current procedure, if properly done, has little in common with the butchery of big cats depicted in Conrad's film. Sara Mark, owner of the Southwest Veterinary Hospital in Littleton, Colorado, attended a screening of The Paw Project at Lavizzo's office a few weeks ago and left unpersuaded by the claims about long-term complications and behavior problems. "People involved in the rescues see the bad cases," she says. "In thirty years of practice, I have had no cats that regrew portions of nail. I had one that ended up with some neuritis that we were able to remedy."

Southwest Hospital recently came under fire on an antideclawing website for offering free declaws as part of a clinical trial for pain medication. Mark says the clients who participated in the study weren't encouraged by her team to declaw and were required to sign lengthy release forms disclosing the details of the surgery. She, too, stresses alternatives to declawing when clients ask about it: "If you don't want property damage in your house, don't have an animal," she says. But she also believes the surgery is justified in certain cases; she's had three immune-compromised clients seeking organ transplants who were told they'd be taken off the transplant list if they didn't have their cats declawed. And there's the prospect of a sofa-shredding cat losing its home.

"If it comes down to yet another cat that's going to live its life in a shelter or get euthanized," Mark says, "or doing a front declaw to let that cat live — I cannot in good conscience say, 'Yes, being dead is better than losing your claws.'"

But declawed cats end up in shelters, too. They may be more likely to end up there in later years, as arthritis and elimination problems surface, than cats that still have their claws. One study found that declawed cats are nearly twice as likely to be surrendered to shelters as their intact brethren. Because cats with behavior problems are much less likely to be deemed adoptable, their euthanization rate may be higher, too.

Yet the percentage of declawed cats found among shelter populations seems to vary widely. Scott of the Cat Care Society reports that her shelter currently has sixty cats awaiting adoption. Ten are declawed cats. Most of them were returned eight or more years after they were first adopted. Six of them were returned specifically because of failure to use the litter box.

Not all declawed cats have inappropriate elimination issues, of course. Hofve suggests that owners who insist on declawed pets can find suitable ones in shelters. And with better, less costly antiscratching options widely available, from furniture covers to consults with animal behaviorists, Hofve doesn't see any ethical rationale for the surgery.

"Maybe declawing does save some lives," she says. "But for others, it's a death sentence. It shouldn't be a choice between declawing and getting rid of the cat in the first place. It's a choice between declawing and many alternatives."

Conrad has a 2011 letter from Governor John Hickenlooper to a constituent that features a handwritten postscript: "We would never declaw a cat (and my wife Helen has had several)." She hopes other Colorado citizens feel the same way.

"Addressing a behavior problem with surgery in human medicine went out with lobotomy," she says. "This can be addressed with behavior modification, not surgery."

For animal lovers, the United States' practice of declawing cats can be a grim and depressing topic, but Conrad's documentary isn't as bleak as it sounds. "I didn't want to make an animal film where you walk out and you want to kill yourself," she says.

The Paw Project ends on an inspirational note, urging viewers to get involved in banning the surgery, just as Conrad and her supporters successfully got it banned in several California cities. It's not much of a spoiler to reveal that the Goliath who shows up in the film to try to squelch Conrad's grassroots rebellion is the California Veterinary Medical Association. After Conrad persuades city officials in West Hollywood to pass the first declawing ban of its kind in North America — Councilman John Duran is described as "mortified" after learning more about the surgery, which he'd had done on his own cat — the CVMA sues in an effort to overturn the ban.

That lawsuit fails, but CVMA lobbies successfully for a state law that would effectively prohibit other California municipalities from enacting similar bans. Given a narrow window of time during which antideclawing ordinances could be grandfathered in before the "ban on bans" takes effect, Conrad embarks on a blitz of several other city councils, trying to get them to follow West Hollywood's lead before it's too late. Suffice it to say that the score sheet at the end of the battle suggests that rational argument and appeals to compassion can still carry the day — at least some of the time.

Even in one battleground that Conrad lost, her home town of Malibu, a screening of the documentary helped turn defeat into victory. Within 24 hours of the screening, she says, the one vet in Malibu known for declawing announced that he would no longer perform the surgery: "After the screening, something like 50 of his patients called for their records, wanting to transfer them to a vet who won't declaw. He got the message loud and clear."

Lavizzo, Hofve and the other local activists hope the Colorado screening will get people similarly steamed. They're talking to lawmakers, seeking sponsors for legislation that could be introduced next year, and hoping that the state vet association stays out of the fray. (Ralph Johnson, executive director of the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association, says that his group has adopted no position on declawing at present, but the issue is "receiving active discussion.") Colorado is known as a place where people dote on their pets — or animal companions, if you prefer — and they expect to be able to rally considerable public support. But will it be enough to compel lawmakers to ban what many veterinarians still consider a simple and expedient surgery?

"On a personal level, I find this procedure cruel," says former Denver prosecutor Diane Balkin, now a contract attorney for the Animal Legal Defense Fund's criminal-justice program. "But the real question is how far the legislature can go in dictating what a professional can and can't do."

After the completion of her documentary, Conrad was involved in getting a bill through the California legislature that prohibits landlords from requiring that renters' cats be declawed or that dogs be debarked as a condition of occupancy. Governor Jerry Brown signed the bill into law last fall, and the measure was predictably hailed as one of those wacky California laws that puts the rights of dumb animals before those of people.

Colorado has an opportunity to be even wackier. Lavizzo doesn't know if the bill to ban declawing will come next year or some time later, but he's in for the long haul. In one scene in The Paw Project, he quotes Leonardo da Vinci — "The smallest feline is a masterpiece" — and grimaces as he reflects on how he and his colleagues have savaged that masterpiece, altered it with a cruel yet routine surgery, performed not out of medical necessity, but for the sake of profit and convenience.

For Lavizzo, there's no question of turning back. It's time to step on some toes.

Scroll to read more St. Louis Metro News articles (1)


Join Riverfront Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.